As another London club closes, Amsterdam shows why we need a “night mayor”

A DJ at work – albeit in Singapore, not Amsterdam or London. Image: Getty.

If you like going dancing in London, you’ve probably heard the bad news already. Dance Tunnel, the intimate Dalston club that has hosted DJs like Prosumer, Tama Sumo and Ben UFO, will close in August.

In an announcement on Facebook, the club said that “the licensing climate in Hackney has made it impossible for us to get the hours we need to make Dance Tunnel sustainable in the long term”.

Their problem is that te club fills up at midnight, and its license only extends to 3am – and three hours of bar take isn’t paying the bills. (The door money usually goes to outside promoters.) A 5am license would allow it to earn enough to continue; but aside from occasionally using Temporary Event Notices (TENs), which are difficult to come by in Dalston’s Special Policy Area, that’s just not going to happen.

At first glance, this seems like a cut-and-dried case of a local council putting their foot down on a thriving, well-regulated business that brings worldwide renown to their borough, whilst paying business rates and employing young people. But it might not be as simple as that: Hackney council released its own statement, defending the decision and noting that Dance Tunnel “has not applied to extend their opening hours for over two years”.

The club then issued another statement, in which it said that its “future lies elsewhere” – and that it would “look further afield to find a space where we are subject to fewer compromises”. So it looks like they’ve decided to pick another battle – or at least another battlefield.

Dance Tunnel is just a 200-capacity venue – but news of its closure was trending on Twitter within hours and was even covered by the BBC. More is at stake here than just a few clubbers’ good times (though one wonders where Hackney Council thinks these people will go, if they keep losing legal venues to party in). The recent spate of club closures are an attack on exactly the kind of entrepreneurship London should be encouraging.

One possible solution to the problem – one the mayor’s office got behind late last year, via a recommendation by the Music Venues Taskforce – is to create a “nightlife champion”. This could be an individual (a “night mayor”); or a committee, like the Club Commission at work in Berlin.

Alan Miller is chair of the Night Time Industry Association (NTIA), a lobbying group established last year. He argues that such a group could “act as a conduit between business and policymakers, and understand the cultural ramifications, as well as the economic benefits, of what happens in nightlife.

“There’s a big gap of understanding in Britain and especially in London about the cultural, economic and social benefits of nightlife,” he continues. “It’s not only about national insurance, business rates, employment and generating 6 per cent of Britain’s GDP – I’m talking about ourselves as a brand, how we find artists like Adele and Tinie Tempah and Mark Ronson, but also somewhere people get inspired by new fashion trends, art, or by tech.”

In Amsterdam, night mayor Mirik Milan – formery a club promoter of 10 years’ standing – has been in office since 2012 (the year Dance Tunnel opened). He heads an independent, non-profit foundation, whose job is to ensure the city’s nightlife remains dynamic. Last year, he told Time Out what that means:

“We try to build bridges between the mayor and city council, small business owners like nightclubs, venues and promoters and city residents. Nightlife is a world which is difficult to penetrate, and I always say: ‘How can you maintain a culture if you don’t have any clue what’s going on?’”

Milan’s biggest success has been the introduction of 24-hour licenses – for example at De School, the new venue from the group behind Trouw, which closed last year. As he told Time Out, “Clubs benefit from it because they can go on longer, and the surrounding neighbourhood benefits because it’s not like at four in the morning a thousand people suddenly hit the street, all at once.”

Amsterdam’s new 24-hour venues are mainly out of town – unlike London’s venues, which often exist in increasingly residential neighbourhoods. (The Music Venues Trust has recently won a big legislative victory here.)


But the Dutch example can still be of relevance. Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein, an area which Milan likens to Leicester Square, is now part of a three-year pilot project to reduce the 300 odd violent incidents that were formerly reported each year. This involves taking an approach more like running a music festival: “There you’ll have, like, 20,000 people,” Milan told the Guardian last month. “Maybe two get pick-pocketed, and there’s one fight. It’s because you have easy-on, easy-off access, clear routes around the site, a programme and rules that everyone knows and understands, soft security … Basically, a pleasant environment.”In other words, Amsterdam treats nightlife destinations as events – and the people in them as informed participants, not potential criminals.

The mayor’s Night Time Commission is still looking into what can be done to save London’s battered but unbowed night time culture. It’s due to report its findings in the autumn, after a six-month study that was announced in March.

Those findings can’t come soon enough. As Miles Simpson – promoter of Thunder, one of Dance Tunnel’s most popular events – points out, just because there aren’t legal parties on offer, that doesn’t mean that people will just go home quietly.

Venues like Dance Tunnel are “professionally run by people dedicated to delivering a high quality and safe environment where people can enjoy themselves,” he says. But legal restrictions mean they are getting “squeezed out of existence, leaving people to party in dangerous, unlicensed firetraps, in shop basements and disused warehouses.

“It’s a sad loss to London nightlife, but it certainly isn’t the first in recent times,” he adds. “And I fear it won’t be the last either.”

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.